UC Berkeley History of Art Department

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Rethinking the Origins of Art-and-Culture: What Neuroscience Can Contribute

John Onians, Professor Emeritus of World Art, University of East Anglia, UK


 Applying the principles of "neuroarthistory," the lecture addresses Paleolithic Art--much the most striking and complex trace left by our prehistoric ancestors. A hundred years ago, many scholars were happy to see art as having its origin in spontaneous behaviors. More recently, a consensus has developed that it is the product of an elaborate culture, whose self-consciousness is said to be demonstrated by its dependence on the use of language to formulate myths and cosmologies. The discoveries of recent neuroscience suggest, however, that this approach might be misdirected. Knowledge of the processes of neural formation at the level of the individual enables us to see the earliest painting, sculpture, and architecture as having been shaped by visceral concerns rooted in circumstances specific to particular places. The emergence of art at different places and times may be not so much the result of social exchange mediated by language as a contingent interaction between local circumstances and a common neural inheritance.

The founder editor of Art History, John Onions is the author of several books, most recently, European Art: A Neuroarthistory (Yale). In September 2016, he gave the keynote address at the International Congress of the History of Art in Beijing.